Holiday Spirit

Geoff asks his father, Steve Davis, to make him some popcorn while in their Palo Alto backyard on Nov. 16, 2022. Photo by Magali Gauthier.

Posted November 18, 2022

Building friendships where schools and community organizations leave off
Volunteer buddies provide social support for children, youth and young adults with special needs

by Emily Margaretten / Palo Alto Weekly

Nine-year-old Geoff doesn't talk much; he has difficulty communicating verbally. But his eagerness to go to camp this past summer was palpable to his father, Steve Davis. Every morning Geoff would place his father's sandals right next to his feet, a clear sign to get going at 7:30 a.m., two hours before camp actually started.

"He was ready to go to camp," Davis laughed. "He was very, very excited about it. In fact, that's probably the first time he has ever kind of specifically affirmatively expressed something like that. ... Whenever he communicates something very strongly and clearly that he really likes something, it's a special occasion, and I'll take it."

Summer camp is just one of 11 support service programs offered by Bay Area Friendship Circle, a Palo Alto nonprofit organization committed to providing an inclusive environment for children, teens and young adults with special needs between the ages of 3 and 30 years. Friendship Circle started 19 years ago, initially to help Jewish families, Executive Director and Rabbi Ezzy Shusterman said. But as its popularity grew, it opened up to all people. Today the organization serves over 100 families with about 30% coming from Palo Alto and East Palo Alto and the rest from surrounding cities.

"Our philosophy is that we pick up where schools and community organizations leave off," Shusterman said. "A lot of kids may go to church; they may go to synagogue; they may go to public school or somewhere else — but when that's over, they're kind of left alone. And we pick up, and we're there."

For Davis, Friendship Circle offers something that most other organizations do not: the chance for his autistic son to be a kid. Between school and several hours of therapy every day, Geoff has very little free time to play.

"Friendship Circle is a break from school," Program Director Lauren Levinson said, describing what she often tells new families. "It's a break from therapy; it's a place for the kids to come in, be themselves and have a fun time."

Friendship Circle received $5,000 from the Palo Alto Weekly Annual Holiday Fund this year, helping it restart some of its most popular activities, like an ice-skating day, sports day and movie day. Because of COVID-19, these activities did not happen in 2020 and 2021. The grant also helped cover safety supplies, like masks, which were necessary for returning to in-person programs.

Participants of Friendship Circle particularly missed connecting with their buddies during the pandemic. Every program pairs a participant with a teenage volunteer who provides social support and friendship. Geoff met Josh Mandel, a 19-year-old De Anza College student, at winter camp last year, and they have been buddies ever since.

Twice a month Geoff and Mandel take part in Sunday Circle, a two-hour program that offers art, music and movement activities for children and youth between the ages of 5 and 20 years. The program, which accommodates up to 45 participants, helps kids interact with each other in a supportive environment.

"It's a great way for Geoff to get social time with other people and kids, which is something that I think if you're not disabled, you kind of take for granted," Davis said.

These social interactions extend to parents as well.

"It's always challenging for parents of kids with disabilities to find people to connect with that they can talk about stuff," Davis said. This is especially true when it comes to dealing with schools, state agencies and health insurance.

"It's like this whole set of systems, and none of them work very well," Davis continued. "So, there's a lot of communication and mutual support and sharing this folklore," with parents telling each other, "This is kind of how you get things done."

Recognizing the importance of these connections, Friendship Circle developed a family support group for parents, grandparents and adult siblings. It also designed a Kidz Circle program for younger children, 3 and 4 years old, which is an age when parents often receive a diagnosis about their child and have a lot of questions about what to expect.

But even for families with older children, Friendship Circle is an invaluable resource. Meg Edgett's 10-year-old daughter recently joined Sunday Circle, looking to form friendships with other children like herself. She is the only child with Down syndrome in her Hillsborough school district, a surprising situation for Edgett given that Down syndrome occurs in about 1 in every 700 babies born in the United States.

"We're a small enough community that we're still looking for ways to connect," Edgett said.

Friendship Circle, meanwhile, is at capacity; many of its programs are full with waitlists. Since the easing of pandemic restrictions, enrollment is at an all-time high, Levinson said, in part because not many programs offer regular one-to-one support, as seen with the buddy system.

"There's not a ton of programs for kids with more serious disabilities," Davis confirmed. "This one is a real asset. People come from all over the Bay Area to participate, families who have kids with disabilities as well as people volunteering to help, which is cool."

Make a donation
2022 Recipient Agency

49ers Academy$10,000

AbilityPath$10,000

Able Works$10,000

Ada's Cafe$25,000

Adolescent Counseling Services$7,500

Art in Action$10,000

Bay Area Friendship Circle$5,000

Beyond Barriers Athletic Foundation$5,000

Big Brothers Big Sisters
of the Bay Area
$10,000

Blossom Birth & Family$5,000

Canopy$5,000

CASA of San Mateo County$5,000

Children's Health Council$10,000

Christmas Bureau of Palo Alto$5,000

Community Legal Services in East Palo Alto$10,000

Counseling and Support Services for Youth - CASSY$15,000

DreamCatchers$15,000

East Palo Alto Academy Foundation$10,000

East Palo Alto Charter School$5,000

East Palo Alto Kids Foundation$15,000

East Palo Alto Tennis and Tutoring$15,000

East Palo Alto YMCA$10,000

Eastside College
Preparatory School
$7,500

EPACENTER$10,000

Family Connections$7,500

Fit Kids Foundation$5,000

Foundation for a
College Education
$10,000

Fresh Approach$10,000

Friends for Youth$5,000

Friends of the Palo Alto Junior Museum & Zoo$10,000

Heart and Home Collaborative$10,000

Hope Horizon East Palo Alto$7,500

Jasper Ridge Farm$5,000

Kara$15,000

Learning Home Volunteers$10,000

Live In Peace$10,000

Magical Bridge Foundation$10,000

Mannakin Theater & Dance$5,000

Marine Science Institute$5,000

Midpen Media Center$7,500

Music in the Schools Foundation$8,000

My New Red Shoes$5,000

New Voices for Youth$5,000

Pacific Art League of Palo Alto$12,000

Palo Alto Art Center Foundation$10,000

Palo Alto Community Child Care $30,000

Palo Alto Players$10,000

Peer Point$20,000

Peninsula Bridge$10,000

Peninsula College Fund$10,000

Peninsula Healthcare Connection$10,000

Peninsula Volunteers$15,000

Peninsula Youth Theatre$5,000

Pursuit of Excellence Scholarship Foundation$20,000

Ravenswood Classroom Partners$20,000

Ravenswood Education Foundation$10,000

Reading Partners
Silicon Valley
$10,000

ReadySetExcel$5,000

Rebuilding Together Peninsula$7,500

Resource Area for
Teaching (RAFT)
$5,000

Rich May Foundation$5,000

Rise Together Education$10,000

Ronald McDonald House$5,000

Rosalie Rendu Center$5,000

Sager Family Farm$5,000

Silicon Valley
Urban Debate League
$7,500

St. Elizabeth Seton School$10,000

TheatreWorks$5,000

UNAFF (United Nations Association Film Festival)$10,000

WeHOPE$15,000

WomenSV$7,500

Youth Community Service$25,000

Child Care Grants

All Five$10,000

Covenant Children's Center$10,000

Creative Montessori
Learning Center
$10,000

Grace Lutheran Preschool$10,000

Palo Alto Friends Nursery School$10,000

Parents Nursery School$10,000


As of January 28th, 384 donors have contributed $742,923 to the Holiday Fund.
* indicates amount withheld at donor's request

58 Anonymous137,070
Lani Freeman & Stephen Monismith*
Veronica Tincher*
Janice & Walter Sedriks100
Rob Colley & Kate Godfrey100
Wachtel Family1,000
Dr. & Mrs. Frederic J. Kahn1,000
Richard M. Glendening100
Kay Remsen*
Delle Maxwell1,000
Kenneth Bencala & Sally O'Neil100
Nancy & Joe Huber*
Ann & Don Rothblatt500
Retired*
Eric & Katie Seedman*
Mitchell Rosen50
Colleen Chihak and Joe Urbassik*
Debbie Mytels100
Elizabeth Shepard*
Roger V. Smith500
Annette Isaacson200
Julie & Dan Lythcott-Haims250
Anne & Don Vermeil*
Deborah Roth200
Page & Ferrell Sanders150
Tess & Eric Byler150
Robert & Barbara Simpson*
Denise and Jeff Simons*
Keith and Linda Clarke*
Peter Rosenthal1,000
Roderick C. McCalley100
Glenda & Gordon Hughes2,500
Nancy & Steve Levy250
Lynn and Andrew Newman*
Anthony & Susan Wood25,000
Boyce & Peggy Nute*
Maureen O'Connor150
Gwen Barry*
Martha Shirk1,200
Hoda Epstein*
Jennifer DiBrienza & Jesse Dorogusker1,000
Jack & Martha McLaughlin*
Elizabeth Lillard-Bernal75
Diane and Brandy Sikic*
Marilyn, Dale, Rick & Mei Simbeck*
Duane Bay & Barbara Noparstak150
Nancy & Jim Baer*
Werner Graf*
Alicia Newman100
Dorsey & Katherine Bass300
Jonathan MacQuitty & Laurie Hunter1,000
Bill Reller*
Edie Kirkwood1,000
Harry E & Susan B Hartzell100
Micri & Bob Cardelli*
George & Betsy Young*
Diana Diamond1,000
Ann Burrell & Charles Smith*
Brigid Barton 2,000
Charlie Williams*
Janis Ulevich*
Diane Doolittle*
Theradep Technologies500
Lee Zulman*
Jack and Susan Thomas*
Korol Family250
Bruce & Mary Beth Train500
Julie and Jon Jerome*
Lawrence R. Yang & Jennifer W. Kuan10,000
Harriet Benson10,000
Andrea B. Smith100
Arthur Keller250
Mackenzie Family Fund25,000
Leif and Sharon Erickson500
Susan D Osofsky Fund200
The Havern Family5,000
Weil Family Fund1,000
Gwen Luce and Family*
Barry L. Goldblatt150
Margaret A. Krebs578
Diane and Joe Rolfe*
Diane Finkelstein250
Linda & Steve Boxer*
David & Betsy Fryberger400
Bruce & Jane Gee250
Judith Appleby300
Chris & Anna Saccheri5,000
Donald Barr150
Charles & Barbara Stevens*
Edward Kanazawa300
Bill Johnson & Terri Lobdell2,500
Karen A. Latchford*
Dawes Family Fund500
Gavin & Tricia Christensen*
Kingsley Jack250
Braff Family Fund 500
Jean MacDonell200
The Fruchterman Family Fund250
The UMOC Charitable Fund 250,000
Nancy Wong and Robert Lipshutz200
Ellmann Family100
Vic and Norma Hesterman200
Gil and Gail Woolley200
J Platt & S Murphy*
Richard and Karen Olson500
Richard Zuanich150
Carli Scott*
Seema Ramanathan & Arun Ramchandran 250
Gwen and Wally Whittier200
Sue Elgee and Steve Eglash500
Charles Katz & Gina Signorello250
Patti Yanklowitz and Mark Krasnow100
The Dong Family200
Jody Maxmin*
Ted & Ginny Chu*
Ellen and Ron Krasnow*
Thomas Rindfleisch*
Ed & Linda Selden721
Cynthia Costell100
Romola Georgia*
Elgin & Elizabeth Lee500
Georgie Gleim1,000
Scottie Zimmerman100
Alice Schaffer Smith100
Rob and Lucinda Lenicheck250
Marcia & Michael Katz200
Christine and Bob Buss*
Alice Erber and Robert Steinberg200
Pat Burt500
Scott and Jan Kilner500
Jean Doble*
Dorothy Saxe100
Kieschnick family1,000
Bonnie Packer500
Steve & Diane Ciesinski500
Elizabeth Lee and Remington Fong*
Gerald C. & Joyce M. Barker*
Barbara & Skip Shapiro*
Dena Hill500
Barbara Klein*
Dorothy Deringer200
Art and Peggy Stauffer500
George & Betsy Bechtel200
Jonathan & Judith Rattner100
John Tang & Jean Hsia*
Joan Willingham150
Ed & Linda DeMeo500
Ellen M. Lillington200
Stuart & Carol Hansen*
Penny & Greg Gallo500
Tom & Nancy Fiene200
Tom & Patricia Sanders*
Elizabeth Salzer & Richard Baumgartner*
Fran Codispoti250
Bruce Campbell*
Amado & Deborah Padilla250
Margo Sensenbrenner*
Paul & Jane Millman250
Mahlon & Carol Hubenthal*
Deborah A. Williams & Jean Luc Laminette1,000
Jerry & Bobbie Wagger*
Merele McClure250
Kate & Marvin Feinstein1,000
Judy Kramer*
Richard & Pat Douglas50
Margaret Forsyth and Glenn Rennels*
David Backer500
Constance Crawford250
Kingston Duffie & Elizabeth Schwerer500
Jill and Brian Bicknell300
Rosalind Haber200
Freddy & Jan Gabus250
Susan & Doug Woodman150
Donald Price*
Judy Ousterhout*
John Keller100
Hyrkin Family500
Donna Silverberg100
Leo & Marlys Keoshian250
Charlotte Johansen200
Robert McMillen100
Roger & Joan Warnke300
Virginia and David Pollard125
Jim & Valerie Stinger100
Eileen & Rick Brooks1,000
Carolyn Williams & Mike Keeler*
Marian Sanders*
Katherine Bryant100
Ralph & Jackie Wheeler 300
Barbara Riper*
Sally & Craig Nordlund500
Carolyn Caddes*
Kroymann Family250
Marian Adams100
Roy & Carol Blitzer*
Elaine Hahn1,500
Joanne Koltnow400
Joan Norton*
Christina Kenrick1,000
Nina & Norman Kulgein200
Karen Winkleman Furman & Bruce Furman100
Richard Johnsson5,000
Becky & Ted Baer250
Xiaofan Lin100
Bonnie and Bryan Street*
Denise Savoie and Darrell Duffie*
Stephanie Klein & Larry Baer*
Larry Klein500
Marvin & Kate Feinstein500
Carol & Hal Louchheim400
Leonard & Mary Jo Levy150
Katherine L. Hunt400
Ajit Bhave & Manisha Kulshrestha500
Bill and Susan Beall *
Eric Keller and Janice Bohman*
Linda& Jerry Elkind*
Tony & Kathleen Hughes1,000
Leanne and Peter Giles100
Barbara Allen100
Dukovic and Frommer Charitable Fund100
John B. Florine Galen*
Diane Moore*
The Ely Family500
Scott & Sandra Pearson500
Trish Bubenik*
Eric & Linda Jensen250
Vic Befera 100
Mindy & David Sitzer*
David Kalkbrenner*
Rosalie Shepherd100
Kay Sabin*
George & Dianna Richardson250
Dr. Teresa L. Roberts1,000
In Memory Of

Margarot T. Hanks200
Florence K. Ho2,500
Carol Berkowitz*
Bill Land100
Marilyn Hansen*
Betty Meltzer50
Bertha Kalson*
Boyd Paulson Jr.3,000
Alan & Tracy *
Dr. David Zlotnick*
Paul Seaver*
Nate Rosenberg100
Kathy Morris1,500
Jeffrey David Tuerk*
Ruth & Chet Johnson*
Chet Brown*
Andre Jones *
Mary Floyd50
Mr. & Mrs. Ray Tinney200
Nellie Perna Bartello100
Mason & Ryan*
Mary & Emmet Lorey*
Ian Halliday250
David Sager100
Ruth Satterthwaite*
Marie and Don Snow200
Er-Ying and Y.C. Yen250
Beverly Aarts*
Ted Linden200
Philip M. Stein*
Jack Sutorius750
Walter Dean*
Rabbi Sidney and Marjorie Akselrad *
Gary Zweig500
Karl Knapp500
Bob Donald*
Aaron O’Neill*
Jim and Dottie Mellberg*
Zorro*
Shiela Mandoli*
J Norman Rossen*
Shiela Mandoli 100
Edward and Elizabeth Buurma*
Elizabeth and Edward Buurma*
Bob Markevitch100
Ray Bacchetti300
Bob Donald350
Steven T. Ross100
Leonard Ware*
Michele Wilson*
Lily & Philip Gottheiner150
Gerald Berner300
August King*
Bob Simoni500
Phil Zschokke200
Franklin Elieh*
Mary Alice Carpenter Pearson50
Robert Spinrad100
David W. Mitchell*
Samuel Benjamin Kurland300
Robert O. Jack150
Kaye H. Kelley & Richard C. Van Dusen*
Franklin*
Suman Patni*
Patricia A. Popp*
Duncan Matteson1,000
Maureen Martin*
Pam Grady250
In Honor Of

Dr Ron Radzilowski*
Marie Wolbach50
Leo & Sylvia Breidenbach and Thomas & Louise Phinney1,000
Darla Tupper3,922
Marilyn Sutorius750
Joe Simitian*
Lee Zulman96
Polly Caddes*
Gabby Perez & Logan Marsh250
Liz Kniss250
Georgia Lee*
Barbara Zimmer and Kevin Mayer150
Businesses & Organizations

Delores Eberhart DDS*
Angelo Family Foundation 5,000
soccermoviemom.com150
Palo Alto Business Park*
Arrillaga Foundation10,000
Leannah Hunt Realtor250
Peery Foundation10,000
Hearts & Minds Activity Center75
Palo Alto Weekly Moonlight Run67,893
Alta Mesa Cemetery & Funeral Home2,500
Hewlett Foundation25,000
Packard Foundation25,000
Communications & Power Industries LLC*
McCalmont Engineering2,500

Past Holiday Fund Grant Recipients

2018-2019 | 2017-2018 | 2016-2017 | 2015-2016 | 2014-2015 | 2013-2014 | 2012-2013 | 2011-2012 | 2010-2011 | 2009-2010 | 2008-2009 | 2007-2008 | 2006-2007 | 2005-2006 | 2004-2005 | 2003-2004 | 2002-2003 | 2001-2002 | 2000-2001 | 1999-2000